The Czech dissident, politician, and writer, who died today at 75, left important lessons for a world that badly needs them
Among all of Vaclav Havel's contributions to the world -- playwright, activist, Czech independence leader, Czech president, and what today's New York Times obituary calls "a global ambassador of conscience" -- his least celebrated role might be that of public intellectual. That's not due to any lack of ardor for his writings, which have been widely read and praised; his other acts, which helped steer the course of post-war European history, simply outshine them. But one of his most forceful ideas has special resonance today. Peace can only be assured where there is democracy, and if we wish for a peaceful world we must make it a free and democratic one.
"Today's world, as we all know, is faced with multiple threats," he said in 1993 in Athens, on accepting one of the countless honors he received. "From whichever angle I look at this menace, I always come to the conclusion that salvation can only come through a profound awakening of man to his own personal responsibility, which is at the same time a global responsibility. Thus, the only way to save our world, as I see it, lies in a democracy that recalls its ancient Greek roots: democracy based on an integral human personality personally answering for the fate of the community."
It's a message that seems obvious only in the abstract, and is frequently forgotten in the particular. During the Cold War, the U.S. responded to the threat of World War Three in part by aiding democratic, anti-Soviet movements like Havel's -- but only in Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, the U.S. suppressed democratic movements that it feared might align with communism and it supported or imposed pro-American dictatorships. Europe has been blessed with a period of remarkable peace, but those less democratic regions endured decades of conflict. In the Middle East, the U.S. still today supports dictatorships in the name of stability, and still today the region is among the world's most violent.
"Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens, there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and their state, there can be no guarantee of external peace," Havel wrote in 1985, when Soviet oppression of his country was at its height and often targeted him personally, in an essay titled Anatomy of a Reticence. "A state that denies its citizens their basic rights becomes a danger to its neighbors as well: internal arbitrary rule will be reflected in arbitrary external relations. The suppression of public opinion, the abolition of public competition for power and its public exercise opens the way for the state power to arm itself in any way it sees fit. A manipulated population can be misused in serving any military adventure whatever."
On February 21, 1990, only weeks after becoming president of the newly independent Czechoslovakia, Havel addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, which was eager to help him, his country, and all of Eastern Europe that had just freed itself from Soviet control. But he warned that the U.S. should "see a little further"; it should not consider the weakening of the Soviet Union (which would not fall for nearly two years) as a victory against evil, as Ronald Reagan had portrayed the Cold War, so much as an incremental step toward a more important goal of freedom for all people. More important than a massive Soviet defeat, in other words, was a smaller victory for something Havel named many times in this address and in so many of his speeches: democracy.
"Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness," Havel told Congress, referring to a movement toward democracy, "nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe for which the world is headed -- be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization -- will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war, or by the danger that the absurd mountains of nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have definitely won. This is actually far from being a final victory."
Havel's revolutionary message -- which helped oust the world's second strongest power from his country, but which Americans and in that moment the American Congress have not always been ready to hear -- is that peace does not come by defeating enemies, it comes by making people free, governments democratic, and societies just. "The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world order. Yet, I think it must be anchored in a different place, and in a different way, than has been the case so far. If it is to be more than just a slogan mocked by half the world, it cannot be expressed in the language of a departing era, and it must not be mere froth floating on the subsiding waters of faith in a purely scientific relationship to the world," he said in a 1994 speech.
As the world watches bloody struggles for freedom in the Middle East, China, Iran, Burma, Congo, and once again Russia, it's worth remembering the lessons of one of the few people who has succeeded in replacing dictatorship with democracy, and peacefully. Vaclav Havel's greatest contribution, even greater than leading Czechoslovakia to peace and freedom, may have been showing the rest of us the way.